By Margaret DiBenedetto
The icy surface of the snow crunched under the weight of my snowshoes. Just loose enough to get a good grip; firm enough to keep me on top of the two feet of late winter snow that had fallen, begun to melt, then iced up again. It was a good crust.
I’d parked at the top of the road and headed down a wooded hillside, then turned to level off at a field before re-entering the hemlocks. I decided to look at my map and take a drink of water before continuing on. As I stood, appreciating the view, I heard a distinct hissing. Very familiar, it seemed to be that of a Canada goose. Why would a goose be here, I wondered. I looked up in the sky, then behind me, completely flummoxed. Again, the hiss. Coming from the ground.
I noticed the black space of a hollow beneath a downed tree two feet from the tips of my snowshoes. The hiss came from under the tree. Aha. A bear den.
I’ve seen winter dens before. Sometimes they’re under rock ledges. Sometimes males will curl up with scant cover, barely protected from the weather and snowfall. As a volunteer with the New York State Department of Environmental Protection, I’ve hiked up mountains to dens where collared females have concealed themselves to give birth. Studying these, the largest of our Catskills mammals, helps in their management and protection.
I had no way of knowing if the bear at my feet was a male or female, collared or not. But I knew it wasn’t happy that I was so close to its’ den. If it was a female with cubs, I did not want it to expend energy worrying about me and perhaps worry about defending her babies. I quickly reached for my phone, snapped a photo of the den, and retreated as quietly as possible to let the bear get back to its’ slumber.
I like to think it was a female with cubs. That chance meeting was the beginning of Ebony Bear.
I spent the next several months formulating a story that would weave the natural wonder of bears with the reality that too often, bears encounter humans and civilization, and too often, the encounters do not end well for the bears.